Tag Archives: Benjamin Wood

Win the Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016 Shortlist…

Yes, having asked very nicely and the lovely people behind the Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016 saying yes, I can kindly give you all the chance to win the whole of the shortlist for this years prize. Oh and it is open internationally. Hoorah. As an inaugural official shadow judge I have read them all and can confirm they are all brilliant, tough decisions ahead.

In case you have missed it here is the shortlist, and links to my reviews…

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How do you win? Simple, tell me your favourite author under 35 and why you love their work so much in the comments below and one of you, from anywhere in the world, will be picked at random after midnight GMT on Wednesday the 30th of November and announced on the blog when the winner of the actual prize is. Hoorah. Good luck.

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Young Writer of the Year Award 2016 (And Shadow Judging It)

This morning the four titles eligible for The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser Dunlop Award (quite a mouthful but bear with it because it is a wonderful prize) have been announced. Now before I go onto introduce them, I just thought you might like to know what qualifies for the prize, because if you are anything like me this stuff fascinates you. The basic rules are that £5000 is awarded to a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by an author of 35 years or under. The winning book being an work of outstanding literary merit. Last year the prize was won by Sarah Howe with Loop of Jade a collection of poetry which I was rather a big fan of.

So what about the shortlist this year, which I am going to be one of the official Shadow Judges for (more on that below), well let me share the wonderfully eclectic list of titles with you now…

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I have read all four of them already, so there may be a giveaway of a set at some point, though Jessie Greengrass is in my small pile of ‘reviews to finally tweak and put up on the blog’ so that review will be coming soon. I have linked to all the others above. What I can say about them as a collective is a) they are all rather marvellous b) they all do some really innovative (a marmite word I know but true) things with their form be they poetry, a novel, a collection of short stories, or in one case a mix of them all c) the judges are going to have a very difficult time choosing one of these winners… and so are the shadow panel, of which I am one.

Yes, thrillingly I am one of the inaugural official Shadow Judges (which I think sounds quite mystical/magical, like I can summon myself in a shadow and appear anywhere at anytime, possibly now sounding ominous oops) this year along side the wonderful Kim of Reading Matters, Eric of LonesomeReader, Naomi of The Writes of Women and Charlie of The Worm Hole, Dan Dalton will be joining us as a chair for a very exciting official shadow meeting. You can find out more about us as a collective here. We will be discussing, debating and convening over the next few weeks before we announce our winner a few days before the official winner is revealed in early December. So that is going to be great. I am planning on dipping into all four of them again over the forthcoming weeks.

So which of the titles have you read and what did you make of them? Which of these that you haven’t read hold a certain appeal to you? Do let me know and we can have a natter about them in the comments below.

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The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood

As this goes live I should hopefully be out on a (half) Turkish isle, which is a slightly dubious link to my review today, as Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic starts off on a remote Turkish island. Admittedly one that is cold and snowy as opposed to the (hopefully) sunny one I will have descended on. I have purposefully headed to Cyprus for a reading retreat, the characters in The Ecliptic however have gone away to help harness their creative endeavours. So I thought it was an apt time to discuss a book which I read on another reading retreat last year and have been thinking about a long time since for all sorts of reasons…

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Scribner, 2015, hardback, fiction, 480 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Portmantle, on the Turkish island of Heybeliada, is a retreat for artists away from the world where they can either rest or recuperate their genius or let that genius loose of their minds and bodies on full cylinders. Here there are strict rules, you must change your name and not only forget the world outside it’s grounds but also endeavour not to refer to it, designed to harness the purity of your concentration and focus. At Portmantle we meet Knell, a painter, along with Quickman the novelist, Pettifer the architect, MacKinney the playwright who have become a little clique, that is until the arrival of a new young artist, Fullerton, whose arrival sets tongues wagging and (as can be the case when anyone new enters a situation) alters the equilibrium between the group. Knell in particular finds herself drawn to Fullerton and his seemingly slightly tortured and mysterious soul.

Of the four of us, it was surely Quickman who valued his detachment most. In the early days, we could not look at him without thinking of the famous photograph on the back cover of his novels – the sunflower lean of him towards the lens, arms crossed defiantly, the brooding London skyline on his shoulders. We had grown up with him on our shelves, that stylish young face squinting at us over bookends, from underneath coffee mugs on our bedside tables. His real name was known in many households, even if it was not part of daily conversation; in literary circles, it was a synonym for greatness, a word that critics added esque to in reviews of lesser writers.

It is hard to say much more about this section of the book for fear of some spoilers which lead to an incredibly gripping, twisted and wonderfully gothic story which I was completely enthralled by. This dramatic conclusion, which is roughly under a third of the book, then sees a sudden shift where we go back to Knell’s life before Portmantle when she was known (and indeed became very well known) as Elspeth Conroy. We follow her life and career as she becomes an assistant, to artist Jim Culvers, after university and then becomes a much acclaimed artist herself in the years that follow.

Now I have to say that the shift in tone niggled me a little at first though Wood soon lulled into the world of the art scene in London (with periods in New York, one of the books strands takes place on a voyage between the two) in what the fifties, yet cleverly has a timeless feel like Portmantle does. As we follow her through the discovery of her creative genius, for that is what she becomes hailed as, we watch as she falls in love, gains confidence, then questions herself as her raise to fame brings other pressures and changes her world for the good and the bad. This is where I found Wood does a marvellous turn at looking at how wonderful the arts and culture world is and also how utterly bonkers and absurd.

I never understood why all this glitz and pageantry was required to sell a picture – it certainly had nothing to do with art. Every painter I respected worked alone in a quiet room, and the images they made were intended for solemn reflection, not to provide the scenery for obnoxious gatherings of nabobs and batty collectors wearing too much perfume. After a while, the company of such people became the norm, and I was expected not only to enchant them with my work, but also to fascinate them with my personality. If I baulked at placating these strangers, it merely served to enthral them even more.

I am not renowned for being a huge fan of books about the arts, in fact often quite the opposite (odd considering I work for a cultural team and love that world, maybe it feels a bit like a busman’s holiday) yet I was converted by Wood because of his writing – which reminds me of Colm Toibin for some reason, which is a big compliment. Firstly the character of Elspeth is such a vivid one, I genuinely felt as if I was with her along all these varied and different through both the highs and the lows. I also thought Wood evoked the era and the places wonderfully, whilst also giving them a slightly surreal edge too almost like a fairy tale but without the magic. I also really liked the feeling that something was coming, again no spoilers here, that would then lead Elspeth to Portmantle and to a life as a pseudonym. I was gulping it all down, especially once we then return to the gothic world of Heybeliada where everything gets all the more odd, sinister and surreal.

There is however a but coming and it is this that I have been thinking about for months since I finished the book and it all revolves around the denouement that you don’t see coming yet sense in the air as the tension gets more and more fraught as The Ecliptic’s conclusion arrives. I think this nameless moment is probably a huge divider for anyone reading the book. People will either love it or they will possibly be a little bit miffed by it, even when another little twist follows. I sadly fell into the latter camp, though I know I am one of the few and far between as many people who I love and trust the opinions of loved it. I felt tricked but not in a good way. I love endings I don’t expect, I love authors doing something different and Wood does these wonderfully. I just think the manipulation that many see as marvellous, and I admire, just lost me and completely unintentionally. I should have worked for me as it has for so many, but it just made me a bit peeved. This was definitely one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ moments as Benjamin as he had me with him for 80% of the book.

Months later the scar from that slight jolt (so dramatic Simon, ha) has passed and as I mention above I can completely understand why what happens happens, the purpose of it and why many wonder at it. I am just in a minority, possibly of one. That said I look back on The Ecliptic and instantly the two worlds of the gothic Portmantle with Knell and the glitzy art world and all behind its facade with Elspeth come straight to the fore because Wood’s writing and characters are superb. I shall definitely be heading to The Bellweather Revivals in due course and think maybe The Ecliptic is a book I may need to take off my shelves in years to come and revisit again because it has certainly stayed with me and made me think about it long after I read it. I would recommend many of you give the experience a whirl and come back and tell me all about it. A perfect book group book if any of you a pondering your next choice, much to ponder and talk about.

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Filed under Benjamin Wood, Review, Scribner

Other People’s Bookshelves #67 – Ruth F. Hunt

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in Lancashire to meet author and painter Ruth Hunt and to have a nosey around her bookshelves. Before we do though do grab yourself a cuppa and some of those biscuits and let’s get to know Ruth a little better…

I live in West Lancashire and I’m a writer, putting together features for The Morning Star, and the occasional article for other publications. My debut novel, The Single Feather is out now, about a paraplegic young woman, trying to forge a new future despite a traumatic and abusive past. I also paint, mainly for commissions, though I do have paintings in galleries and exhibitions. I’m currently studying Creative Writing with the Open University. I’m disabled following a nasty accident when I was 18. I emerged with ‘life-changing injuries’ which includes spinal cord injuries and an amputation.  One of the ways reading is so important to me, is most of the time I’m housebound, only getting out when I have help. Books are my social life.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

My TBR books are on my coffee table. If I like the book, I then have the first problem, which is I have no more shelf space. So if I REALLY love a book, I take out one that isn’t loved as much, and put it in its place.  ‘The book that isn’t loved as much’, will end up in a pile somewhere, usually in my study.  The books I don’t get on with go to my mum or my cleaner, who then will either read them or take them to a charity shop. I have a cull each time I move, but it’s never a drastic cull – maybe four or five carrier bags.  I quickly find I have more books than I culled in my new home in a matter of weeks.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Whenever I move, I start off with organised shelves, usually organised according to genre.  However, that doesn’t last. Looking at my shelves today you wouldn’t think that five years ago they were organised.  The only shelf that has a semblance of order is one row in my study with lots of ‘How to Write’ books.  I obsessively buy these, usually around 11:30pm at night, when I’m at my most vulnerable for impulse buying. As my shelves are so disorganized, I sometimes have to locate books using old photo’s I’ve taken of my bookshelves. It’s a reliable method, so if you are disorganized like me, regularly take photos of your bookcases.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

The first book I bought with my own money was called Flowers in the Attic by Virginia C Andrews. It was very popular in school, and so I used some of my Saturday job money to buy it.  I’m 99.9% certain it’s not on my shelves now. However, I found a school library book the other day, so you never know!

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Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I do hide guilty pleasures on my shelves, often using postcards and ornaments to hide books I feel embarrassed about. I also have a space behind my TV where I discreetly hide them.  The book that earns the spot as a current guilty pleasure is ‘Where’s Nigel?’  All it is, is cartoon pictures of events with lots of people at it, and you have to spot where Nigel Farage is.  For some reason it makes me chuckle every time I open it.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

When my dad died, my mum gave me all his poetry and set texts he had during his university days. He died when I was a teenager, and I’m to this day sad, that I never chatted to him about his love of books. So, I would plead with a fireman to save those.  The other book I’d want to save has already been moved out of my house to my mum’s wardrobe and no, not in anticipation of a fire!  I won a beautiful copy of Birds Drawn for John Gould by Edward Lear, which is a Folio Illustrated book with a print enclosed and a signed letter from David Attenborough from The Guardian. It was worth £899 when I go it, and so I’m hoping it appreciates in value over time. Jokingly, I say it’s to pay for my mum’s care costs when she’s older, but we both know it’s more than likely to be me that needs it first.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

My dad was a vicar and my mum is a churchgoer too, so when I was a child I remember seeing a lot of CS Lewis on their bookshelves.  When I first had a flat, I bought a couple of his books but really struggled with them. Recently I’ve had another go at reading a CS Lewis novel, but I didn’t find it a pleasurable experience.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

If I really love a book, say for example All Involved by Ryan Gattis, then even though I had a proof copy I had to buy the book. Sometimes, I might buy something on Kindle which turns out to be great – then I will buy the book even though I’ve read it on Kindle. I do re-read books, and I see them as a visual representation of my life, almost like photographs in an album. I’ll pick up a book and remember where I was when I first bought it, who I was with and what year it was and so on.  I also put cuttings from newspapers that are related to the book inside. So I can pick up a book and a faded and yellow tinged review from the 1980’s will tumble out…

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

The last book I added was The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood.  I got it signed in my local independent bookshop and devoured it in the evening.  His description of the creative process was spot on, and got me in the mood for painting!

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I’m really not sure what they would think. I hope they would think I’ve got a broad taste, though that’ not strictly true as my books are probably heavily weighted towards the literary end of things – you won’t find many crime or romance books, or that much non-fiction.

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A huge thanks to Ruth for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, you can find her on Twitter here. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Ruth’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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